A small town in Belgium, called Ghent, has become part-time vegetarian, after its inhabitants decided to abstain from eating meat one day a week, says the Guardian.

The FAO claimed, in 2006, that the livestock industry accounts for 18% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. A pretty compelling stat considering meat eating is conventionally regarded as a benign practice, one that is seen as important for our health and a core part of the developed world’s mealtime habits. Since 1950, however, meat consumption is thought to have increased by 500%. Is our meat eating spiraling out of control?

Mini Burgers

The production of meat is a relatively inefficient energy-wise – not only is there energy loss in the consumption of food products by livestock, that we then eat (when we could eat the food product or an equivalent food product such as wheat, directly) but livestock are also thought to use up to 200 times more water per kilogram produced of meat, than it does for wheat. In addition,  livestock production has come to be associated with deforestation, particularly in areas like Brazil, which has led to the loss of an important carbon sink not to mention its biological and ecological value. With rising and volatile food prices, it seems illogical to be diverting food – particularly cereals – to feed livestock, to then feed us with a luxury food product that in many cases is eaten excessively. Meat consumption has been scientifically linked to cardiovascular disease, diabetes and some cancers in the West, where meat consumption is particularly high.

Relatively speaking meat is expensive and although an important source of protein I doubt very much our diets need to consist of a daily dose of meat. It would be interesting to see if the recession has cut down on overall sales of meat as people tighten their purse strings, or if consumers have moved away from higher quality or speciality meats, such as Organic or Free Range and downgraded for cheaper options (which unfortunately are likely to have more negative externalities for the environment).

It is important to bear in mind that there is significant variation between meat sources and that production practices vary hugely in their environmental impact. Compare, for example, meat produced in the U.S and Kenya – in the U.S,  for each calorie of meat or dairy consumed, livestock consumes on average more than 5 calories in its production. In Kenya, livestock yield more calories than they consume because they are fattened on grass and agricultural by-products that are inedible to humans. Similarly, the developed world, not only in its production practices, but also in its consumption, contributes far more to livestock-related emissions than the developing world. Compare Uganda and the U.S and Europe – in Uganda 45 kg of meat and dairy products were consumed in 2003, whilst in Europe and the U.S. this figure soared to 400kg.

Whilst vegetarianism is a goal that is perhaps unrealistic, cutting down on meat intake could have a significant impact on greenhouse gas emissions.  A one day a week ‘vegetarian’ goal is argued to be achievable and one that is gaining popular traction – let’s hope the small town in Belgium is only the beginning…..